Historically, lefties in the arts are as numerous as there are days in history. However, since the Cold War these numbers have dwindled as liberalism, postmodernism, or anarchism have become the trendy oppositional voice in the arts.
Thanks in part to Corbyn, the left has seen a militant resurgence which in the arts has involved a curious mix of individuals and styles. Lawrence Dunn sits within this curious position. Having first met him at a conference in Vilnius, his topic of discussion was on curious melodies – highlighting key examples like Catherine Lamb and Morton Feldman. Since that point, his music has taken a pretty meteoric rise with notable commissions and accolades including Ensemble Modern, Runner-Up in the Gaudeamus Music Prize, Wigmore Hall, Tectonics Festival Scotland, amongst many others.
In September, I was able to see him again, as he was in Scotland for a performance in Glasgow Cathedral. He presented a talk to the numerous young composers in the conservatoire about his music, its themes and topics, and his overall concern and pessimism about humanity. After the talk, we reminisced about the chaos of trying to deal with technical problems in Vilnius, caught up on things, and complained about numerous things politically – spanning from Chelsea supporters, the damp squib that is Keir Starmer, the failures of Corbyn, and numerous other things, including numerous jokes about how it is only a matter of time until I have an MI5 file comparable to Alan Bush.
I have known about Lawrence’s political leanings for a long while, but what has fascinated me is how he almost avoids directly mentioning politics in his pieces – instead focusing on being a concerned individual and shouting from the rooftops about various problems and injustices. This for me brought numerous things to mind. For those keen on the good ol’ Frankfurt school, Ernst Bloch might feel like a good comparison – trying to look inwardly for answers to the problems in the world. This also ties nicely with Lawrence’s music making, eternally dancing in the uncanny valley.
Diligent enthusiasts of the Frankfurt School may also remember Lukacs’ remarks, directed primarily at Bloch and close colleagues. Lukacs argued that due to surrealism’s nihilistic tendencies ultimately lent itself more closely to the right – mostly notably Nietzsche and fascism, though Bloch argued profusely against such accusations; what we can see in Dunn’s music today is the treading of pessimism and nihilism which Bloch initially defended in the 1930s. Pessimism is a wonderful tool for right-wing individuals in all fields, as it can negate any progress, or simply suggest nothing can be as good as ‘the good ol’ days’. Granted Lawrence Dunn is no Fascist, or even neo-con, he is very aware his musical fascination with pessimism is a topic more explored by the right; but Dunn strongly argues it is a fertile field which the left has a lot to gain from it. An ethos which can remind one of Le Front Populaire as every platform should be used to combat fascism.
On further consideration of the work of Lawrence Dunn, I feel the stronger, and more compelling discussion is how he lines up with Mark Fisher, the author of Capitalist Realism. Fisher highlights how the influence of neoliberalism is so insidious it is almost impossible to imagine a way out – and how ultimately this creates a situation of agonising apathy and depression. Fisher also discusses how politics has also been tarnished by this hegemony, pointing to how almost all ideas born out of intense struggle have been usurped by the mechanisms of capital. One only has to watch all the rainbow flags appearing in July in multi-billion-pound businesses to show how much millionaires care about gays and trans people. As Fisher suggests, it is almost impossible to escape the influence of neoliberalism which leaves artists, in particular, having to either accept this realism or become forced into nihilism.
Lawrence Dunn appears to be a reflection of this problem. How does an artist use their art for good, without it being stolen by neoliberalism? Thus, creating a constant battle/dialogue where the hopes or attempts to build or improve either fail or defeated. A dance of hope and failure. Ultimately meaning there is always a smidgen of hope, a chance to break the cycle of hope and despair; and regardless of the chances, the attempts to fight bring a certain joie de vivre which even if it continually fails, still makes us feel.
The resulting sounds in Lawrence’s music, however, are quite fascinating. When one thinks pessimistic, one imagines darkness or at least a constant pain or fatalism. However, what we see in Dunn’s music is something so intensely familiar and ‘normal’ that it becomes a strange out-of-body experience. Ringing triads, quirky melodies, sounds of swans or calves, repeated ideas – all these things one can clearly hear and feel familiar with, but as Dunn almost drowns us in this familiarity, we reach a strange point of unfamiliarity. A desperate but disappointing musical voice: hope eternally tinged with pessimism or failure, and conversely, a pessimism curiously tinged with a tiny glint of hope.
In the aforementioned discussion in the conservatoire, Lawrence Dunn joked about his music being referred to as ‘magical realism’. Which I must admit, is quite a snazzy label name – which certainly makes labels like new simplicity sound even more ridiculous. Still, I feel capitalist realism would be more fitting. Lawrence Dunn, like the rest of us in Britain, are forced to endure this neoliberal nightmare that Labour, the SNP, and the Tories are so eager to keep alive. Due to the various cuts, musical institutions are forced to ‘evaluate their value’ which has not used this as an opportunity to connect more with the working class, but instead to drift further into neo-liberalism, becoming wooed by ‘clickbait’ and abandoning substance for this quick buck. So, what is a serious artist to do?
Lawrence Dunn somehow manages to make beautiful emotive work despite this, his work doesn’t fall into the trends of ‘schools’ – and he’ll even admit the audience in Germany at his Ensemble Modern premiere was particularly frosty. He’ll probably hate me describing his music as original – either through embarrassment or simply pointing to numerous others he feels a musical closeness too – but the reality is there are few figures like him. Thankfully he isn’t some posh boy who has been sculptured by soft-Tory/New Labour ideals but has managed to stick to his convictions as an artist.
Some may worry, that the young ’uns are abandoning well-seasoned ideals like trade unionism or socialism. However Lawrence Dunn gives us some hope, he, like numerous others are raising their concerns, speaking out against the political quagmire we are stuck in; but without a suitable vessel in which to broadcast their vision. We can hope this changes, however until then we must admit Lawrence Dunn is an artist firmly of our time, politically concerned and awake, but politically homeless and refusing to let that slow his convictions. A fine example, in fact, of Antonio Gramsci's dictum - Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the spirit.
Ben Lunn is a composer, music critic, trade union activist, and helped found the Disabled Artist Network, an organisation which is bridging the gap between the professional world and disabled artists. He also has a monthly column in The Morning Star.